Monday, March 21, 2016

Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934

There is a fascinating new book from Rutgers University Press titled Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934, by Laura Horak.

It is a book which should appeal not only to fans of Louise Brooks, but as well the context of Brooks' career, namely the silent and early sound era. Readable and scholarly, Girls Will Be Boys is also revelatory; the appendix of early films featuring cross-dressed women is a veritable checklist of films to track down and watch. Happily, Horak provides information on where to find many of them.

In 2007, Horak, who is now an assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, wrote a fine essay on Beggars of Life for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. That film is noted in the appendix. In her new book, Horak considers Pandora's Box, the 1929 Brooks film and its prominent lesbian character, Countess Geschwitz. In doing so, she cites the 2012 essay I wrote for the Silent Film Festival on the G.W. Pabst film which discusses the film's turbulent reception in the United States.

Horak's anthology, Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space (Indiana University Press, 2014), co-edited with Jennifer Bean and Anupama Kapse, won the Society of Cinema and Media Studies’ Award for Best Edited Collection of 2014.

Horak's new book has received good reviews. Publishers Weekly said "Horak has produced a meticulously researched, astutely argued, and highly readable text … her use of archival materials is impeccable and her filmic and historical analyses clearly display a nuanced understanding of her topic." I agree.

Girls Will Be Boys considers "Cowboy Girls, Girl Spies, and the Homoerotic Frontier," "Cosmopolitanism, Trousers, and Lesbians in the 1920s," and "The Lesbian Vogue and Backlash against Cross-Dressed Women in the 1930s" and other topics.

Publicity still from lost film The Amazons (1917)

The publisher's description of Girls Will Be Boys: "Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn all made lasting impressions with the cinematic cross-dressing they performed onscreen. What few modern viewers realize, however, is that these seemingly daring performances of the 1930s actually came at the tail end of a long wave of gender-bending films that included more than 400 movies featuring women dressed as men.

Laura Horak spent a decade scouring film archives worldwide, looking at American films made between 1908 and 1934, and what she discovered could revolutionize our understanding of gender roles in the early twentieth century. Questioning the assumption that cross-dressing women were automatically viewed as transgressive, she finds that these figures were popularly regarded as wholesome and regularly appeared onscreen in the 1910s, thus lending greater respectability to the fledgling film industry. Horak also explores how and why this perception of cross-dressed women began to change in the 1920s and early 1930s, examining how cinema played a pivotal part in the representation of lesbian identity.

Girls Will Be Boys excavates a rich history of gender-bending film roles, enabling readers to appreciate the wide array of masculinities that these actresses performed—from sentimental boyhood to rugged virility to gentlemanly refinement. Taking us on a guided tour through a treasure-trove of vintage images, Girls Will Be Boys helps us view the histories of gender, sexuality, and film through fresh eyes."

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)
Here are a few more blurbs from early reviews:

"Drawing on the early archives of American cinema, Horak questions the assumption that cross-dressing actresses were inherently transgressive ... and provides a new lens through which to view gender, sexuality and film." (Autostraddle 15 Queer/Feminist Books To Read In Early 2016)

"Who knew how important were those girls who would be boys? Not only as signs of 'deviancy' but as ideals of red-blooded boyhood itself? This engaging, well-researched book tells more than we ever knew about the many and various reasons 'girls will be boys.'" (Linda Williams University of California, Berkeley)

"Laura Horak's Girls Will Be Boys is without peer as a historical contribution to queer scholarship on early film. It is a revisionist work that draws upon a wealth of historical research to completely overturn previous accounts." (Robert J. King, author of The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture).

Here are a few related images of Brooks not discussed in Horak's book which further support its thesis. These images not only range across gender, but also class.

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